Donald Baechler’s Cartoonish Characters and Lines Convey a Formal Message

The famed New York art dealer Tony Shafrazi was the first to represent Donald Baechler, in 1981. Baechler’s painting aesthetic was, and still is, quickly identifiable for its bold lines and blocks of color. With “The Planet of Memory,” a new exhibition at McClain Gallery in Houston, a selection of his recent paperworks, paintings, and sculptures is brought into view.

In the paintings on view, Baechler boils down his characters into simple terms—flat, cartoonish figures, animals, and flowers thickly outlined in black—and presents them portraying a broad mix of emotions, from sadness and rage to bliss and anxiety. 

There is a profound visual dissonance between foreground and background in many of his works. Furthering this disconnect, Baechler frequently gives his paintings nonsensical, mismatched names. Inspired by what he refers to as the “Carl Andre and Frank Stella model”—Andre once selected titles at random for Stella’s works—Baechler gravitates towards gaps in cognition, particularly between image and text, and conscious and unconscious associations.

The imagery in his paintings could have come from a multitude of divergent locations: flowers from the pages of a tattooist’s portfolio or a PEZ candy from a child’s Halloween bag—as in the funny-faced creature in A Ticket of Intent (Finger Puppet) (2015). But the original source of each image is never specified, and in fact may not be so significant to the overall meaning of his works. As Baechler has explained: “For me, it’s always been more about line, form, balance, and the edge of the canvas—all these silly formalist concerns—than it has been about subject matter or narrative or politics.” With an acute sense of self-awareness, Baechler confirms that his primary concerns are formal rather than content-driven.

Still, the inanimate objects he selects—telephones, soccer balls, ice cream cones—fit together with his doll-like characters to form a sort of familiar, albeit choppy narrative. As art critic Robert Pincus-Witten distilled it, “Donald Baechler nimbly treads an elegant path between the banana peel of the obvious and that of the obscure.”


—Anna Furman


Donald Baechler: The Planet of Memory” is on view at McClain Gallery, Houston, Apr. 30–Jun. 13, 2015.


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